Those of you who know me well know that I love movies. And while I don’t talk about movies to a great degree in my sermons, I am always watching with an eye for Jewish values and teachings reflected in our mainstream media. Having just seen the LEGO movie with my family, for example, I was struck by the many lessons that could be applied to the Torah readings of these past several weeks about the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle.
But that’s a topic for a sermon on another occasion. My real movie passion is superheroes. I can’t explain why. Perhaps a few weeks with a therapist would open a window into my psyche that would reveal a deep desire to have an impenetrable alter-ego. Or perhaps it’s just that I’ve always wanted to be able to fly, to soar above the fray, to see the world from a different perspective.
When Top Gun hit the theaters in 1986, I admit that I fantasized abandoning my plans for law school and heading to the Air Force Academy instead. Most Jewish children, however, especially those getting married and thinking of starting families, put aside such fantasies. Instead, they follow the more conventional routes (like law school, a short stint as an attorney, and then off to Rabbinical school). Unless you are a Jewish child living in Israel.
In Israel, children dream of flying, and some of them (though only a small percentage) will actually get to live out their dream. With hard work, intellectual and physical training, and a bit of luck, Jewish children have grown up to be the defenders from above, true Top Guns, the creme of the crop, Israeli fighter pilots. Some, sadly, have died protecting Israel’s borders and securing a Jewish homeland, and some have gone on to be leaders in politics and business. Some have even gone to space, carrying Torah with them higher than the heavens.
One such Top Gun happens to be a husband and father of three who lives next door to my younger sister in Israel. Colonel Ariel Brickman is my age, he has commanded a fighter squadron of F-16’s, and he has been the Commander of an air force base in Haztor. Our community has been fortunate to visit his base, to experience the flight simulator, to climb into the jets, and to mourn with pilots’ families on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Today, he serves as General Manager of the Ramon Foundation, which promotes and initiates projects aimed at improving society through science and space, and inspiring young people to dream and to achieve. (Ilan Ramon was Israel’s first astronaut, who died with the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia; Asaf Ramon, his son, was a fighter pilot who died in a training accident. Ilan’s wife, Rona, decided to coordinate and manage the many efforts to commemorate her husband and son and celebrate their legacy under the umbrella of the Ramon Foundation. Learn more at http://www.ramonfoundation.org.il.)
Did I mention the Colonel (that’s what his friends call him) is my age? Did I mention that I feel like a child when I am in his presence? Did I mention he is my hero? Did I mention he will be visiting our community this Shabbat morning, sharing his story, and what the legacy of the Ramon family means to Israel?
Well now you know. There will be a real live action hero in the house this Shabbat morning. Perhaps you will join me in greeting him.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
My friend Anne* recently told me a story about her eighteen year old son, Samuel. “When David (her husband) davens, Samuel loves to be in the room. He sits quietly and most often seems to be completely detached from the prayers. If David pauses, however, Samuel inserts the next word in the prayer. Often, David includes Sam in his prayers by pausing throughout, letting Sam add the next word in order. . . with perfect pitch! Sure enough, Sam seems to know the entire morning service by heart.”
David’s prayers are enhanced by sharing them with his son. Sam is multiply disabled and autistic. One might assume that religious connections are beyond his level of comprehension. David and Sam’s shacharit experience tells a different story. Judaism is an anchor for Sam, a point of connection to his family and his people. Sam has a spiritual life that is expressed through his participation in his father’s morning prayers. His synagogue, however, was not a place of engagement for Samuel. His requirements for participation proved too difficult for the synagogue to meet his needs. There is a limit to what an organization can do to accommodate one individual, but I wonder if the synagogue could have tried harder.
Certainly, most synagogues pride themselves on opening their doors wide to all Jews and believe that they are welcoming, inclusive places. I believe that the Orangetown Jewish Center is indeed a welcoming, inclusive place where congregants and clergy alike are focused on ensuring that all are comfortable in our synagogue. We have large-print prayer books, ramps for wheelchair accessibility, and interpreters of American Sign Language. The Nefesh program, under Renee Price’s leadership, offers evenings of education around topics of serving children with a variety of disabilities. In recent years, we have welcomed worshippers from the Rockland Psychiatric Hospital and from county adult group homes to Shabbat services, Na’aseh programs and Sukkot experiences. A loyal troupe of Chesed volunteers visits at an ARC group home for holiday celebrations and a group of teens visits bi-monthly at Jawonio’s Salmon House to bake, play games and do crafts. At the OJC, we do a good job. We can, of course, do more and do better.
We are proud of our Inclusion Committee, chaired by Ellen Abramson and Marianne Brown, that meets to consider accommodations such as a hearing loop system for our sanctuary, free access front doors and ASL interpretation. They need your energy and ideas. Please contact them to get involved. Contact Ellen: email@example.com and Marianne: firstname.lastname@example.org.
February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. The OJC joins with Jewish Federations, National Jewish Education Organizations and synagogues across the United States to recognize and increase the awareness of the needs, strengths, opportunities and challenges of people with disabilities in our Jewish community. I will be speaking on the topic of inclusion this coming Shabbat to acknowledge and honor our efforts and to encourage our further accomplishments in this arena.
“The question is not how we can help people with disabilities (which is an important question). A more important question is how people with disabilities can give their spiritual gifts to us. — Henri Nouwen, Theologian and Author
*The names in this story have all been changed to protect anonymity at my friends’ request.
I look forward to sharing Shabbat with you! Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I certainly don’t mean that we haven’t had enough of them! The students I met on the eve of our last snow day were actually dreading another day at home! It’s boring, they say, and they don’t want to have any of their vacation days taken away.
Snow is one of those things that brings me a sense of “radical amazement,” a term that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to describe the state of witnessing God’s presence in the world around us. I look out my window at this moment, and I see a snowplow in an exercise of futility, fighting its way across the synagogue lot, only to have its tracks entirely covered in seconds. I realize that as much as we try to control time and space, the world is much bigger, and God’s majesty is to be witnessed all around us if we would only take the time to see.
Snow days are just not what they used to be. If you are around my age, I hope that snow days presented ideal opportunities to enjoy family, a warm fire, home-baked cookies, playtime in the snow and hot chocolate made with milk. (Sorry, the Olympics were only being seen recorded during prime time! And there was no Net Flix, On Demand or DVR to binge watch!) Today, the snow may be an inconvenience, but it doesn’t stop most of us from working. Our technology has enabled us to be productive from home, and we are content knowing that the xbox will keep our kids out of the way long enough to let us conduct our business.
There is a good reason why our Halachah with respect to virtual minyans has only evolved to a point. The rule is as follows: an individual may “call in” through electronic means to a minyan for the purpose of communal prayer or to say kaddish. It is indeed wonderful that we can bring people together in this way, especially for the homebound. However, there needs to be an actual, physical minyan present somewhere that is being joined. Ten individuals in separate homes, connected virtually, cannot comprise a minyan. Ultimately, there is simply no substitute for the ideal of being there. Radical amazement can only happen when we are truly present to the moment and to each other.
Snow day. A chance to be there with ourselves or with the ones we love, to appreciate blessings and to acknowledge that we can’t always be in control of time and space. Can’t make it happen on the next snow day? Hang in there, Shabbat is coming!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
What a full, exhilarating and emotional day! Day 4 contained all the elements of what this mission is about. Landing back in Newark this morning, we realize that just the experience of the last day was enough to make the trip worth while.
Thursday morning we began our day with an early minyan, a little teaching from a colleague and breakfast. After breakfast we walked a new path that connects Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum) to Har Herzl (Israel’s military cemetery). The path is marked by historic milestones and pictured events that carried us from the Jewish People’s survival to the founding of the State of Israel. Our tour guide shared stories and created images of individuals who survived the Nazi persecution, only to die in defense of the new state. At the cemetery itself, we gave honor to those who died with no family left to grieve for them, and to those who were laid to rest surrounded by family and a loving country.
Following our tour of the burial place of Israel’s heroes, we met with parents of fallen soldiers, directors of Yal L’banim, an organization that assists mourning families and helps every community memorialize its sons and daughters who die in service of the country. Their stories were poignant, powerful and inspiring, and we hope–as rabbis and as communities–to partner with them in furthering their efforts.
After a short lunch break (McDonald’s for most of us!!!), we visited one of the most exciting infrastructure projects taking place in Israel today. A high speed train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv (28 minutes including a 2 minute stop at the airport) is under construction. Among the many remarkable features of this project are the efforts to preserve the natural landscape. The train will travel from point to point only through tunnels and on bridges. Slated for completion by January 2018 (I will believe it when I see it!), the electric train will reduce pollution and improve lifestyle for many immeasurably! We marveled at the engineering ingenuity as we walked through the mountain tunnel, and were excited to see our Bonds dollars at work!
Our next stop was another new experience for most of the rabbis. The 9/11 memorial in Jerusalem is the only other memorial in the world tot he victims of the tragic attack on the United States, and the presence of the memorial is a testament to our bonds of friendship and shared values. The memorial is a statue of an American flag rising like a flame, with a piece of a girder housed in its base, and a ring of the victim’s names encircling the monument.
Our closing dinner gave us the opportunity to debrief from the day, to express our appreciation of the collegiality we shared, and to affirm our commitment to Israel Bonds and the State of Israel. We left full-hearted, with the desire to return to Israel and to one another, and to share all we had learned. Rabbi Drill and I look forward to sharing so much more with you in the weeks ahead.
Our gratitude to Rabbi Hersh for being on call and responding to the synagogue’s needs as he did in our absence.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
When it comes to a “mixed” group of rabbis (Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, male and female) traveling together on a mission like ours, I can always tell how successful the trip will be based on who shows up for the first morning’s minyan. And this morning’s minyan surpassed my expectations. Nearly every rabbi arrived within the first 10 minutes of our 7am start time! Yes, a couple slept in and a couple got there a bit later, but the tone for the group was set.
After breakfast, we were addressed by Gidi Grinstein, president and founder of the Reut Institute, a non-profit think tank focused on effecting political and social change within Israeli society. (See http://www.Reut-Institute.org for more.) He was engaging and challenging, as he highlighted many issues that Israel confronts in defining what it means to be a Jewish nation-state in todays Jewish world. He shared that the success of the Jewish project for 26 centuries has been based upon a societal structure of a broad network of smaller units, all struggling to be adaptable to changing social, economic and political conditions while trying to hold onto our traditions and values. He coined the term “flexigidity” to characterize our behavior. Interestingly, he surprised us all by asserting that, with more than half the world’s Jews living in Israel and most of the rest living in the United States, the resulting model has hurt the relationships that Jews have shared with each other inside of Israel, and the relationship that Jewish communities of the Diaspora share with Israel. The solution he suggests? Relationships, of course! One to one, and community to community.
We took our comments and debriefing onto the bus and headed to our next stop. CheckPoint is an Israeli start up software company that invented the first firewall, and now claims all 500 of the Fortune 500 as its clients. As an internet security technology company, CheckPoint represents the best of Israeli ingenuity, innovation and competitive strategy on a global scale, and addresses threats that range in scale from script kiddie hackers to cyber-terrorists. Cool!
After lunch, we visited another cutting edge company changing the world for the better. Would you believe I am talking about a sewage treatment facility? And can you believe I am not making any potty jokes??? In all seriousness, water shortage is a major issue in Israel and in many other areas of the world that find themselves on the edge of the desert. The Shafdan Wastewater Reclamation Facility recycles an astounding 85 percent of its waste water as potable. (Compare that with the second leading country in the world, India, at 15 percent!) We had a Disneyworld-like tour through the facility and an actual city pipeline (it was dry, carpeted, and lit!), and learned how Israel’s ingenuity is solving issues of water shortage, and contamination for the Negev and the world.
Back on dry land, we concluded our day with an emotional visit to the Western Wall. The egalitarian rabbis among us prayed together in the new area of the Kotel, the Azarat Yisrael, where men and women are given access to the Wall together. For the first time in the history of the Cabinet’s missions, a woman led the rabbis in prayer. The significance of the moment was not lost on any of us.
The snow should be coming to you once again just as we start our new day. Be safe. More tomorrow.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
There are many reasons to be grateful for the gift of being in Israel: First, it is always a privilege to be here – something I never take for granted. Second, it isn’t snowing here in Tel Aviv (sorry, everyone!). Third, I get to see my daughter who is being released from her base for two days to join me on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. Those reasons are all valid and meaningful. Tonight, however, I am grateful for a different reason.
I am filled with gratitude because I am traveling with thirty-two rabbis of all Jewish streams with the specific purpose of gaining an insider’s view of the work that is accomplished in this country with the income of Israel Bonds. Rabbi Marty Pasternak, Executive Director of the Synagogue Division of Bonds, jokingly introduced us to the itinerary, pointing out that rabbis are going to love putting on hard hats and gaining entrance to construction sites. While I am sure that hard hats, flashlights and tunnels would float Jonathan Drill’s boat, it is the opportunity to learn and to make connections with rabbis that really make me excited about this mission.
Our trip began with an opportunity for hands on chesed, an annual addition made to the itinerary by Rabbi Scheff. We visited one of the food distribution sites of Chasdei Naomi where we sorted produce and packed boxes of food staples for pick up by families in need. The work was satisfying but it felt like a mitzvah lifted higher by the introduction we received in a breathtaking talk given by founder Rabbi Yosef Cohen. Rabbi Cohen told us about growing up in the kind of poverty that one cannot understand unless one has known it. With tears of pure emotion, he shared stories of his youth that influenced him to found this agency that today distributes 300 tons of food to 10,000 hungry families, supporting Israelis in need with various kinds of assistance. For more information, see http://www.chasdei-naomi.org. Rabbi Cohen described bringing home a fresh loaf of bread and his mother’s putting it on a top shelf so that they would finish the older stale loaf before it went bad and precious food was wasted. He never had fresh bread as a child. Today he ensures that children do not go hungry. I was proud to be part of his mission, even for a few hours today.
There was, of course, much more learning, but you will all have an opportunity to hear many stories from Rabbi Scheff and me. For now, it is after eleven here with a 6:00 am wake-up call for morning minyan.
Laila tov from here and tzahariyim tovim there. Good night and good afternoon,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill